From the Maghreb to the Nobel Prize in Physics, twice | Science


One autumn noon, two Maghreb talk at a table in a restaurant in Paris. Both have won the Nobel Prize in Physics. At 86 years old, Claude Cohen-Tannoudji still does not leave her astonishment. “How has a child born in the 1930s, in a small town in Algeria, in a modest Jewish family, been able to study in Paris and, about 40 years later, win the Nobel Prize in Physics? ”, He asks at the table and in his new autobiographical book, Under the sign of the light (editorial Odile Jacob).

He accompanies him, layered on a red checkered tablecloth, Serge Haroche, born in 1944 in Casablanca, a city that, as told by Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart's film, then flirted with Nazi Germany within the French protectorate of Morocco. Haroche and Cohen-Tannoudji were Jewish children in a terrible time to be. They talk about their convulsive lives in an organized meal to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), to which EL PAÍS was invited by the French institution.

The investigations of both nobles they are a leap towards quantum computers, superconducting materials and ultra-precise clocks

Cohen-Tannoudji and Haroche have been 11 years old. They are teacher and disciple. They met more than half a century ago in the laboratory of Alfred Kastler, an essential researcher for the invention of laser light who also won the Nobel Prize in Physics, in 1966. Cohen-Tannoudji followed in 1997 to discover methods to trap atoms for the first time, using his mentor's laser light. And Haroche was awarded in 2012, after using a mirror trap to capture the photons of light. Three Nobel laureates in the same scientific family: the legendary Kastler Brossel Laboratory in Paris, from which “real fireworks” have come out for science, according to Cohen-Tannoudji. The future is being written with its results: ultrafast quantum computers, superconducting electricity materials and ultra-precise quantum clocks.

"Future applications cannot be predicted," says Cohen-Tannoudji, born in 1933 in the city of Constantine, in French colonial Algeria. His ancestors, he explains, ended up there in the 16th century, after fleeing Spain beset by the Inquisition. The physical octogenarian does not have to imagine what the persecution was like. In 1940, when he was 7 years old, the Vichy pronazi government abolished the French nationality of the Jews living in Algeria. “We were stateless. They were bad times, ”he remembers.

Claude Cohen-Tannoudji, Alfred Kastler and Serge Haroche (second, third and fourth from the left), in a 1966 image.

Claude Cohen-Tannoudji, Alfred Kastler and Serge Haroche (second, third and fourth from the left), in a 1966 image.

His whole childhood was full of shocks. Cohen-Tannoudji's parents had a haberdashery in Constantine. “The situation, already quite difficult, became critical of the outbreak of a very violent anti-Semitic revolt on August 5, 1934, supposedly because a Jew had urinated on the wall of a mosque. About 25 Jews were killed, ”recalls the physicist in his autobiography.

“There is a lot of hype with quantum computing. People try to sell things that don't exist yet, ”says Haroche

Cohen-Tannoudji moved to Paris forever in 1953. And Haroche's family left Casablanca after Moroccan independence, in 1956, like many other Jews. “I grew up in a European culture, the French civilization. Do not forget that modern science was born in Europe. The values ​​of scientific reason are part of the European heritage. Science, all over the world, whether in Europe, in China, in India or in South America, is based on the same values, ”says Haroche, disillusioned by the road taken in his homeland of Morocco. "I don't like that his political system is based on religion," he laments.

Serge Haroche climbed in Paris to the shoulders of Claude Cohen-Tannoudji, who in turn had risen to Alfred Kastler's. The result has been a new era in science, allowing direct observation of individual particles of light or matter. At the Kastler Brossel Laboratory in Paris, scientists capture atoms with very complex traps made with magnetic fields and lasers. When cooled to near absolute zero (less than -273 degrees), the atoms barely move and it is possible to study them. A cesium-133 atom, for example, produces 9,192,631,770 oscillations in a second if it is 273 degrees below zero. This is how seconds are measured. Since 1967, ultra-cold atoms establish the unity of time in the international system. That precision is essential for positioning systems such as GPS, for space missions and even for economic transactions in the stock market.

A room of the Kastler Brossel Laboratory, Paris.

A room of the Kastler Brossel Laboratory, Paris.

Haroche and Cohen-Tannoudji are outright advocates of basic research, the knowledge to know, without applications in mind. His curiosity to snoop around the fundamental interactions between light and matter has ended up leading to a millionaire business focused on building ultrafast computers based on quantum physics. "The quantum computer will perhaps change our lives throughout this century, in the same radical way that the classical computer did last century," applauded the statement from the Royal Academy of Sciences of Sweden that reported the Nobel Prize in Physics to Serge Haroche in 2012.

A few weeks ago, Google announced that it had achieved "quantum supremacy": get a quantum computer to solve in a few minutes operations that would require thousands of years of a conventional computer. Haroche is very skeptical. “There is a lot of hype with quantum computing. People try to sell things that don't exist yet, ”says the physicist. “There is a great competition between IBM, Google and Microsoft. They exaggerate their achievements and words like the quantum supremacy are invented. We can be decades away from the quantum computer. Or to an infinity ”, ditch.

At the beginning of the year, French President Emmanuel Macron met for eight hours with 64 intellectuals to discuss the future of France. Haroche and Cohen-Tannoudji were two of the participants. “We told him that it was very important to give enough means to science and improve the lives of young scientists, because their salary is low and they have no money to start researching,” explains Haroche. “What makes me pessimistic is that everyone is complaining. There are problems in hospitals, in firefighters, in the police, in Justice. And scientists are in the last place, because we don't strike, ”he laments. However, both are optimistic. "There are very good people in our laboratory and it is possible that in the future they will have the opportunity to win a fourth Nobel. But I always remind them of one thing: we do not do what we do to win the Nobel," Haroche says.

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